Search for the Lost “Long Gold” Rice

originally published in the rice paper newsletter, 2009

The Carolina Gold grown in the Lowcountry in the the 21st century has the size and configuration of the Gold Seed rice introduced to Carolina in the 1780s  — “oblong grain 3/8ths of an inch in length, slightly flattened on two sides, of a deep yellow or golden color, awn short; when the husk and inner coat are removed, the grain presents a beautiful pearly-white appearance.” Yet there once existed another form of Gold Rice — larger, finer, and more valuable in the world markets—than the familiar form sown in our fields. With grains measuring between 5/12ths to half an inch in length, long Gold rice became the most highly and widely esteemed American rice of the antebellum period. Despite its immense repute, it was under cultivation for less the twenty years, being commercially available from 1843 to 1861. The Civil War disrupted the complicated seed management that kept the variety viable. Long Gold would be the foremost agricultural casualty of the Civil War.

Long Gold appeared suddenly, a genetic sport of regular Gold Seed rice, spotted as a lone panicle lying on the ground after the 1837 harvest by Mr. Thompson, the overseer of Brookgreen Plantation. Brookgreen’s owner, Joshua John Ward, was the most ambitious and scientific, of Carolina’s antebel- lum planters. He took up Thompson’s discovery and carefully developed the strain, planting it in newly cleared marsh lands, soil free of red rice con- tamination and blessed with maximum fertility. From 1838 to 1843 he nurtured the grain, giving pure seed to his circle of planters working north of the Santee River. In 1843, Ward and his circle grew sufficient quantities of Long Gold to make it avail- able commercially. Its qualities immediately com- manded the wallets of rice buyers, who paid “15 to 20 per centum more” for it than regular Carolina Gold of prime grade. [R. W. Allston, “On the Culti- vation of Rice,” Southern Agriculturalist 3, 7 (July 1843), p. 245.] In 1844 Ward placed Long Gold seed rice on the market, making it available to anyone who wished to undertake cultivation. Yet the rigor that keeping seed rice for Long Gold pure proved so great, that only Ward himself supplied it for much of the time it remained on the market.

The difficulties of maintaining seed integrity were not the sole problems that Long Gold’s growers faced. The larger grains caused problems with the commercial rice processing mills, requiring recali- bration of the grinding surfaces to keep the rice from breaking apart when having the bran removed. Joshua John Ward died in 1853, turning his rice empire over to son, Joshua Ward, who main- tained Long Gold’s seed stock as a testimony to his father’s memory. According the R. Habersham, the Savannah, GA, grain broker, Joshua Ward’s own mills processed most of the Long Gold produced on the eve of the Civil War. The war disrupted the planting schedule, stopping seed production for Long Gold. By 1865 the variety was lost in the Wac- camaw region. In 1869 Joshua Ward died, and the will of his father went into litigation that would lead to the plantation’s break-up. While Long Gold had been crossed with other varieties during its two decades of production, engendering long grain raise in other places, it only lived in the cherished memo- ries of southern cooks and agriculturists as the twentieth century dawned.

The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation in its fall 2008 meeting formed the goal of restoring the lost long version of the grain. It discussed undertaking seed archaeology at Brookgreen and other sites known to have grown the grain, and also discussed using modern breeding methods to recreate the form.